Peer helpers are popular kids at Cape Elizabeth Middle School

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CAPE ELIZABETH — More students are signing up to be peer helpers at Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

The peer helper program pairs seventh- and eighth-graders with fifth- and sixth- graders at the middle school to create mentor relationships. Now in its sixth year, 70 students have signed up to be peer helpers – almost twice the number of those who participated last year.

“I think people have been talking about it way more,” said eighth-grader Piper Strunk, who is in her second year as a peer helper. “Back in fifth grade it wasn’t talked about as much.”

The school guidance counselors and social worker attribute the change to the work the middle school has done to break stereotypes and biases among students.

“Over the past few years we’ve really tried to make that a priority here and create a climate of acceptance,” social worker Chip Babineau said.

The peer helper program helps younger students transition to being at the middle school.

“It’s really about connecting them with older kids in the school,” Babineau said. “It can be intimidating in the middle school.”

Stephanie Bouffard, the sixth- and eighth-grade guidance counselor, said it’s nice for the younger kids to have a friend who’s already been through the experience of being at a new school.

“Sometimes when you’re transitioning to middle school you’re trying to get your feet under you,” Bouffard said. “It’s nice to have an older student make you feel more comfortable.”

Strunk said she thinks the program helps the younger students come out of their shells.

“I love helping the younger kids and seeing their growth,” she said. “You can see how much they develop socially.”

This year there are 26 fifth- and sixth-graders signed up, although students and mentors can join at any time throughout the year. With so many students participating this year, there are two or three peer helpers matched with one younger student.

Although some of the younger students participate in the program because they have special needs, a lot of them do it as a way to deal with how overwhelming middle school can be.

Kim Sturgeon, the fifth- and seventh-grade guidance counselor, said the program is effective because sometimes kids don’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings with teachers or staff members.

“Kids can do so much with other kids sometimes instead of adults,” she said.

The effectiveness of the program is also shown through the fact there are several peer helpers who had helpers when they were in fifth or sixth grade.

“It tells us that this does work and that students find it helpful,” Babineau said.

Seventh-grader Ricky Perruzzi is a peer helper this year after being part of the program as a younger student.

“I had a peer helper when I was in fifth and sixth grade,” he said. “It was really fun and it taught me a lot of things.”

Bouffard said many more boys have signed up to be peer helpers this year than in the past. She thinks the school’s push to stop defining gender roles may have influenced that trend, and the peer helper program helps to “buck those stereotypes.”

“You can be a boy who has emotions and you can be a girl who speaks up,” Bouffard said. “Peer helpers support that. We’re whole people and don’t have to play by those stereotypes.”

Babineau agreed, saying kids can be a peer helper and an athlete, for example.

“This is the age where kids start to define those things,” Babineau said. “We want them to feel that they can be a lot of things.”

Seventh-grader Madison McCarthy said she wanted to be a peer helper to help others be themselves by breaking stereotypes.

“I’m not afraid of who I am and I would like other kids to have the same confidence,” she said. “Being yourself is important and they need to feel good about themselves.”

Bouffard said the peer helpers, as well as other middle school students, enjoy giving back and helping others.

“We have really fabulous community-minded students,” she said. “I think they like the opportunity to help.”

Babineau said participating in the program lets students feel like they’re “making a positive difference in the school.”

“There’s a sense of responsibility and ownership that comes with it,” he said. “It gives them a positive self-identity.”

The students said there’s another important benefit that comes with the program.

“You get to branch out and meet people in different grades,” Strunk said. “You definitely get a friendship out of it.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Cape Elizabeth Middle School’s peer helper program matches seventh- and eighth-graders with fifth- and sixth-graders in mentor relationships.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.